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Wildlife Rescue Center In Ballwin Sees Recent Surge In Creaturely Patients

Wildlife Rescue Center
This three-toed box turtle was rescued in Catawissa, Missouri, in late March after a car strike resulted in a quarter-sized hole in his top shell. He’s been through weeks of treatment, and soon he’ll be headed back to his wild home.

Last year, the Wildlife Rescue Center located in Ballwin, Missouri, saw a significant uptick in the number of patients it cared for: Some 3,500 creatures got assistance from the center’s small staff and army of volunteers over the course of 2020.

The increase didn’t come as a total surprise to executive director Kim Rutledge, who noted that it’s part of an overall upward trend in recent years.

“But 2019 to 2020 was a really big jump,” she added.

Wildlife Rescue Center
This chipmunk became trapped in netting before getting help through the Wildlife Rescue Center.

Rutledge told St. Louis on the Air that a variety of factors may be contributing to the trend, including more public awareness of wildlife rehabilitation and more concern for the environment in general. Rutledge also wonders if the fact that people have been at home more, and outside more, may be part of it.

“Now kind of the working theory is [that] possibly because people were home more, they perhaps were in their yards and encountering animals,” she explained on Friday’s show. “It also feels good to help wildlife, so in a time when people were super stressed out, it could be possible that people really were going out of their way to be good samaritans when they could.”

Even amid pandemic shutdowns and tricky protocols, the Wildlife Rescue Center crew found ways to continue helping animals. The center’s busiest season came at the same time as the most intense period of COVID-19 upheaval.

“Really over the course of a weekend we managed to communicate with our group of volunteers to get everybody’s availability, find out if we had people that could do multiple shifts, and we completely changed the way that we operate so that we could have isolated groups and teams that didn’t come into contact with each other,” Rutledge explained.

Some of the most common creatures that make their way to the center include cottontail rabbits, gray squirrels, possums, mallard ducks, Canada geese and box turtles.

Wildlife Rescue Center
A mallard duck gets a lift at the Wildlife Rescue Center after being found struggling with a plastic ring from a milk bottle.

“We do get occasional animals that are a little less common to see — we do see quite a few red foxes, gray foxes, bobcats, occasionally,” she added. “We’ve even had a badger actually at one point in time. So all the wildlife that you see outside, just about. We treat mammals, reptiles, amphibians, and waterbirds. we stay quite, quite busy.”

But the best stories out of her organization, Rutledge said, involve animals that never have to come to the center for rehabilitation in the first place.

“[The 3,500 patients in 2020] represents only about 10% of the calls that we receive,” she noted. “We field thousands of phone calls, hundreds of phone calls a day, in the busy season right now. .... And people call us just to report that they’ve seen a wild animal. And they’re concerned, because they’re worried that it needs to be taken to the wild.

“Sometimes they call because they find a baby animal that they think needs help. And so we talk through all of these situations to explain that, you know, seeing a red fox in your yard and in a suburban area [is] not uncommon. That's so cool that you get to see that. And it’s nice to talk to folks and they're like, ‘Oh, I can be excited about this. I don't need to be worried about this animal living here. It's an indication that I live in a healthy ecosystem.’”

How The Wildlife Rescue Center Kept On Helping Animals Amid COVID-19
Listen as the organization's executive director, Kim Rutledge, talks with host Sarah Fenske.

Rutledge said there are a lot of calls right now regarding whitetail deer fawns.

“Part of their survival mechanism is that when these babies are born, they’re not strong enough to follow mom around while she eats enough leaves to feed herself and make food for her baby,” she explained.

“So these fawns, when they're under two weeks old, know instinctively to just lie still and wait for mom. And in areas like St. Louis County, sometimes they’re lying still in an area where they’re kind of just out in the open sometimes on people's porches [or] in yards. And when you come across one of these babies, you can’t help but feel like, ‘I at least need to make sure it’s OK.’”

When people call the center in such scenarios, personnel explain the situation, and life continues on as it should. And the center’s seven staffers and 70-some volunteers are happy to help and advise regardless of the nature of the question or scenario that arises.

“Our volunteers do a lot of hands-on work, and it really is unique,” Rutledge said. “When you’re working with wildlife, the goal is to treat these animals and get them back out into the wild so that they can do their job in the ecosystem. And it’s very, very rewarding. It’s difficult; it’s hard work. It's a lot of cleaning and things like that. But there are a lot of people out there who really enjoy getting in and getting their hands dirty and making a difference.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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